Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Apr 15 2010

A Dying African Lake, Polluted, Overfished; Bad And Getting Worse

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

DUNGA, Kenya—It was shortly after daybreak and a long, wooden fishing skiff crunched up on the stony beach here along Lake Victoria. Women who sell fish in the market in nearby Kisumu swarmed the boat. They grabbed slippery Nile perch and tilapia and tossed them into their plastic baskets. Then they began haggling.

The catch that day was meager, and one woman came away with nothing. “The fishermen don’t get enough fish,” said Salin Atieno, 37. She has been buying fish at the Dunga landing for seven years. “There are not that many fish now.”

Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, is suffering. It is polluted with raw sewage and it is muddy from the erosion of soil from nearby hills that have lost trees and shrubs to people in search of firewood. Like Lake Chad in West Africa and a few other lakes around the world, it has also been shrinking. Parts of Lake Victoria are clogged with hyacinths and algae. All of this has been thinning out the fish.

“The lake is dying,” said Dr. Raphael Kapiyo, the head of environmental studies at Maseno University in Kisumu, an East African trading post of a city with about 400,000 people.

As Kisumu and other towns and cities around the lake have grown and economies have struggled, more people have begun trying their hand at fishing. They forget about fishing seasons, if they ever knew about them, and they fish with nets that trap the smallest minnows. This all adds up to overfishing.

The governments of Kenya and the two other countries bordering Lake Victoria, Uganda and Tanzania, have established regulations on fishing and pollution. They have organized fishermen groups and restricted fishing on one of the most popular local species to give the fish breathing room for recovery. But conditions in Lake Victoria keep getting worse.

Fish processing factories dump their waste into the lake. New factories have sprung up, some of them producing soap and, as a by-product, pollution.

Kisumu has a sewage treatment plant, Dr. Kapiyo said, “but it is far from adequate and a lot of raw sewage flows directly into the lake.” Sewage spills into the lake from Uganda and Tanzania, as well. Rivers flowing into the lake pick up the runoff from farms: cattle waste and fertilizers and pesticides. The pollution might be worse were it not that the millions of poor, small farmers in East Africa use fewer chemicals than farmers in many places.

Dr. Kapiyo said the lake has receded as much as 150 feet in some places. Because of higher temperatures in Kenya, possibly because of global warming, the rate of evaporation has risen. Moreover, water is being diverted from the lake for use in running hydro-electric power plants.

“The amount of water flowing into the lake is becoming less and less,” Dr. Kapiyo said. It was late afternoon and we were talking in a garden shaded by bougainvillea and ficus trees.

“The amount of water going out of the lake,” Dr. Kapiyo said, “has become more and more.” In the shade of the trees, the baking heat had eased and there was even a little breeze.

On the Dunga beach the rising sun glinted off the water. I talked with Samson Masero. He is 29 years old and has been fishing for five years. Even in his short time on the water he has noticed a decline in fish. But as far as he can tell, he told me, there has been “no big change in the water.”

“This is like our office,” he said. “There has not been any big change.”

Jason Agwenge, 40, has 20 years more experience on the lake than Mr. Masero. He remembers a different Lake Victoria. “The water was so clean,” he said, “we used to drink it.”

Mrs. Atieno, the market woman who came away with an empty basket, was wearing a bright blue basketball jacket the morning I met her. Her hair was clipped short. Her long, leaf-patterned skirt fell to her sandals. To her, the biggest problem on the lake is overfishing. “There are not any kinds of jobs here,” she said, “and they just go to the lake. There is not any other kind of work they can do.” #

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Jul 09 2009

Florida Wildlife Refuge Struggles With Pollution But Still Beguiles

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla.–Just a few yards inside the gate, my wife spotted an Ibis—pure white with long pink spindly legs, curved beak—poking around in the mangrove for a meal. A little further along in the  J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge we saw a great blue heron and four egrets out on a sandbar with a thin covering of water.

The tide was running out and soon the sandbar would break the surface and begin baking in the hot Florida sun. The birds would move on, lifting off in the warm, moist air like graceful ballerinas, in no hurry, going no place in particular.

We were taking the paved gravel road through Ding Darling out of season and at an ill-advised time of day, neither early morning nor early evening. Yet we were seeing a sizeable swath of mangrove and tropical greenery not far from Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida that seemed as wild as what the pioneers came across more than 130 years ago. A black anhinga, just back from diving for a mullet, perched on a nearly submerged bit of mangrove and spread its wings to dry in the streaming sunlight. A young roseate spoonbill, with a long white neck and pink-streaked feathers spreading over its fuselage, dipped its head into the salt water.

I’ve been coming to Ding Darling for years and it has always been a treat. But the 6,400-acre refuge has struggled with severe pollution.  Experts who watch Ding Darling closely say it is gravely threatened and could ultimately be destroyed by discharges of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee, 75 miles inland. The water is loaded with fertilizer and waste water that cause eruptions of toxic algae.

In 2004 and 2005 Ding Darling was beset by algae that smothered huge swaths of sea grass and sucked the oxygen out of the water. Truckloads of fish died, according to Michael J. Valiquette, the chairman of the Planning Commission or zoning authority for the upscale town of Sanibel, which shares the island of Sanibel with Ding Darling. The loss of the fish and the sea grass left little for birds to eat and flocks of them pulled out. The damage, which never attracted much attention beyond southwest Florida, was still evident in  2006.

The refuge is recovering, Mr. Valiquette said. But he said full recovery could take a decade. Mr. Valiquette, who is also both a home builder and an environmentalist, founded an organization called People United to Restore Our Rivers and Estuaries or PURRE in 2004 as the algae problem was beginning.

Patrick D. Martin, the deputy manager of Ding Darling, said he worries that the long-term consequences of the algae outbreak have yet to be uncovered.

Lake Okeechobee, in the heart of Florida’s richest farm land, is drained off whenever it threatens to top or topple its dikes and flood nearby towns.

Mr. Valiquette and PURRE are urging lawmakers to restrict fertilizer use and are pushing for federal legislation to help clean up the refuge and to dig further into the effects of the pollution. But he and other experts say Ding Darling is in danger of another pollution assault anytime Lake Okeechobee’s water level must be drastically lowered.

“All the pieces are in place for this to happen again the next time there is a big hurricane” with heavy rain, said Mr. Martin, the deputy manager of Ding Darling.  And, he said, another strong outburst of algae could be disastrous.  “I don’t think we’d be able to perpetuate the refuge,” Mr. Martin said.

The United States Corps of Engineers, which helps manage Lake Okeechobee or Lake O, as it is often referred to, recognizes the damage that the lake water inflicts on Ding Darling and other parts of the Gulf Coast. But its first responsibility is to protect lives.  James Evens, an environmental biologist for the City of Sanibel, said, “Public safety always trumps the environment.”

The refuge was established in 1945, after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a newspaper editorial cartoonist who won two Pulitzer Prizes, helped block a land development project on Sanibel Island and persuaded President Harry Truman to create a wildlife sanctuary. The refuge was renamed in Mr. Darling’s honor in 1965.  During the Roosevelt years Mr. Darling served for 18 months as the director of what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and later was a founder and the first president of the forerunner of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Ding Darling refuge is not a manicured place. When a tree falls, the wind and the tides decide whether it will stay or drift away.  In one concession to convenience, the authorities have built a few boardwalks and small platforms with stainless steel railings so that people can get out from shore and closer to the birds and other wildlife.

It was hot and muggy the day my wife, Barbara Dill, and I were there. We saw few other people. A man in a red baseball cap came along one of the boardwalks. It was Michael Ahlgrim, a retired chemist from Cologne, Germany.  The water near us was copper-colored. But you could see the sandy bottom and there was no sign of pollution.  “The water looks good,” Mr. Ahlgrim said. “It’s clear. You can see the fish.” He had just seen some turtles that I had missed.

Mr. Ahlgrim and his wife, Hiltrud, were making a swing around Florida, their 11th trip to the United States, this time without their grown children. “We like the U.S.,” Mrs. Ahlgrim said. Then she talked about Ding Darling. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. “So quiet. People who come here want to see wildlife. And because of that they are watching and listening.”#

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